brillient

A light in the darkness of the soul.

Big Picture

Understanding the big picture is my holy grail.

It’s a never-ending process. But it still seems possible to make progress. Although the evidence suggests that it doesn’t matter if you know the big picture, even if it were possible. Because radical changes come from essentially nowhere.

The world is a distributed collection of experiments. Even if you only count people. Nature has orders of magnitude more power and variability than human beings. But humans themselves represent sufficient uncertainty to prevent successful anticipation of future trends.

Technological inventions are only one source of uncertainty. Cultural trends can move the world in unexpected and radical ways. Politics, media, entertainment, fashion, and other characteristics of culture are highly sensitive to small changes in human behaviour. Trends come out of nowhere, and then disappear without warning.

On the other hand, since human nature is mostly constant, it is tempting to imagine that the noise of cultural trends either cancels itself out, or follows a historical cycle. Or even that, like Ozymandius in The Watchmen graphic novel, it is possible to read the cultural temperature and predict changes in consumer habits, or even manipulate them. There is a theory that individuals do not really change society that often, unless society is predisposed to change. In which case, any person who suits the bill will suffice to initiate a new cultural trend.

Of course, timing is everything. But nothing can be timed.

I’ve grown more interested in theories of how to beat the stock market. Most scientists say that it cannot be done reliably. Anyone who succeeds is lucky. Survivorship bias distorts our ability to distinguish luck from skill.

I’m not that interested in getting rich from stock trading. But I am interested in the problem of how to anticipate changes in complex systems that feature positive feedback loops. The stock market is one of the most intensively analyzed examples. A market captures the essence of such systems, because it reduces to a single kind of action: trading. There are only two types of trade: buying and selling.

An ecosystem, by contrast, has too many different kinds of actions to keep track of. Perhaps, fundamentally, an ecosystem is a market for energy, and there are, likewise, only two ways to interact with energy: you either collect it (save it) or you spend it. But it’s not even that simple: acquiring energy involves spending energy. Meanwhile different organisms acquire and spend energy in different ways, and they are not fungible. Trees cannot switch from solar energy collectors to become carnivores.

Humans live somewhere in between. We can participate in markets, but we usually have to invest energy for the long term. Not as long as species must invest in genetic bets, but still, if you take the time to specialize in some trade or profession, chances are that you will have to stick with it for a long time to see a payoff. Unless you get lucky financially in some other way.

Money cannot buy love, as the saying goes. More generally, money can buy survival, by acquiring everything we need, but it cannot buy fulfillment, because that comes from relationships, which are not transactional, but collaborative creations. While it is possible to pay for companionship, it is not quite the same thing.

What I’m really curiou about, however, is whether—and how—a civilization can make rational choices to invest its energy and time in order to maximize its long-term survival. Or if, in contrast, the survival of a civilization is a truly random result of the numerous uncoordinated decisions of its members, and that none of its members can make choices that affect the civilization’s overall success or failure.

Specifically, I’m curious about the odds of the survival of this current civilization: the one I’m living in. And secondarily, the future prospects of our species. Civilization is not required to ensure the survival of the human race. But the point is not to merely survive, or even thrive, but to develop and progress, both materially and morally.

At a deeper level, I am trying to come to terms with the likelihood that the fate of a civilization is completely independent of the choices and fates of its individual members. Whether this can be scientifically proven is another question. And there seem to be many scenarios which argue against it. Except that they are all, as far as I can tell, speculative and conditional on preconditions that there is no way to meet.

The essential example is global warming. (I will not call it by the stupidly vague term of “climate change”.) Global warming can be—not prevented—but halted, and maybe slightly ameliorated, but only by the coordinated actions of a majority of individuals—specifically those with some amount of power in determining how to use energy, and what energy sources to exploit.

If we all (or a politically strong majority) chose to give up the burning of fossil carbon, we could stop global warming. We would need to find alternative ways to do almost everything, and endure a lot of privation for a long while, but it could be done. As we’re likely to burn ourselves into a corner anyway, leading to inevitable forced privation, and a lot of social instability (to put it lightly), it would be the wisest long-term option.

Since there are many incentives to keep burning carbon, we will not stop. No one wants to make sacrifices. We believe we can put it off a little longer. We believe it is inevitable, anyway. We believe we don’t have the power to make a difference. We believe the causes are not what we’re being told. We believe that science will find an easier solution. We believe whatever we need to in order to avoid paying the cost. We are used to not paying. We’ve been regularly, persistently promised that life only gets better, and that sacrifice is for suckers. There are no real alternatives.

Civilization will probably survive global warming in some form. Many people will die prematurely, and a lot of valuable real estate will be lost. But we—or a few of us—will still have all the benefits that civilization has provided. Unfortunately, a lot of people will still be required to make sacrifices they won’t want to. It will just be a bit more like a lottery with only a few winners. But, as long as everyone believes that they are lucky and will be one of the winners, it doesn’t matter if most of us wil be losers. Sure, it’s a bit bloodless, but that’s humans for you.

Now I’m curious to imagine exactly how the damage from global warming will affect civilization. How will it change the world? How will it change life for different people? How will it change how and where we live and work? How we study and learn? How we play? What kinds of migratory patterns will we see? What kinds of conflicts will there be? How will they be resolved? What will it mean for capitalism if productivity goes down? Or will automation compensate?

Automation is a real wild card. It depends utterly on the ability to acquire more energy, or increase efficiency, or both. But it also depends on the ability to have a stable environment somewhere to build factories and otherwise be productive. Whether it’s people or machines doing the work, the work will need a functioning power grid and Internet, transportation networks, and buildings. Mines can’t be closed due to floods. Shipping can’t be interrupted by natural disasters. No matter how many robots and AI server farms we build. (Server farms especially need a reliable environment to work in. Any interruption to their interfaces and resource flows stops them cold.)

An unstable world—due to global warming, or social unrest, or armed conflict, or anything else—impairs the ability of social and economic systems to function. Pandemics are bad for business. Global warming is bad for business, too. It is also bad for people and ecosystems and other things. But so is toxic pollution, dropping air quality, soil erosion, aquifer depletion, loss of biomass and biodiversity, and numerous other side effects of human activity.

I’m very interested in the question of whether—and how—humans will learn—or not—to properly manage the finite and irreplaceable resources at our disposal. Or, maybe, whether we will turn the Earth into a gigantic space colony with no natural systems left. Will we use machines to process the air and water? Will all agriculture be moved indoors? Or will we find a market system that incentivizes protecting natural ecosystem services?

It’s uncertain, but central to how the future unfolds.

Limits to Freedom

There are different kinds of freedoms: of thought, of communication, and of action.

Complete freedom of action is impossible in a healthy society. We must impose limits. Those limits must protect more than property rights, unless we treat everything as property.

Who owns the air? Who owns the waters? Who owns the forests, the wetlands, the mountains, the deserts, the glaciers?

Ostensibly, governments own them, which mean the people own them, collectively, as the “commons”. But virtually no one enforces their rights as property owners of the commons. Not even the government, except superficially. Instead, a privileged minority are permitted to exploit these natural resources, to enrich themselves, at a steep cost to everyone else.

Then again, we all participate in exploiting the air—breathing it—and water—drinking it, swimming and bathing in it, washing our stuff in it, watering our gardens with it—and dumping our pollution into them both. However, both the air and water are unequally exploited. Industry uses 10 to 100 times as much as individuals, and the benefits are enjoyed in proportion to the degree of ownership of said industries and companies.

In rare cases, governments get a fair slice, when they take seriously their responsibility to serve the interests of their entire citizenry. But usually, they mostly serve those with the most money, and abandon everyone else.

Power equals freedom.

But freedom of action imposes costs on its object, to the degree that it is exploited. It’s true that nature recycles the air and and water, but very slowly. Nowhere near fast enough to keep up with the speed at which we are dirtying them. Often, millions of times more slowly.

When the aquifers are drained; when the air is toxic; when the oceans are full of plastic (and empty of oxygen…and fish); when the forests are gone and the fields are sterile; then we will know the true cost of our addiction to the fantasy of unlimited freedom.

Freedom of action is supported by freedom of speech, in turn supported by freedom of thought. In order to restrain action, we must restrain speech. In order to restrain speech, we must restrain thought.

Restraining action is very difficult. Restraining speech is more difficult. Restraining thought is nearly impossible.

In the long run, reality will restrain our actions. When the free bounty of the commons is exhausted, will we enjoy the benefits of more technological miracles? No. Because there will be nothing for technology to act upon, and no energy sources to power it. But we will have to change our techniques long before that happens. We will be forced to, because the scarcity of energy will require it.

There have never been technological miracles, only new techniques for utilizing what was already here. No amount of technological wizardry can get energy and life from a stone. Only time—hundreds of millions of years—can achieve that. Earth’s resources of stored energy and materials took a long time to build up. When they are gone, we must revert back to using them at the rate they are generated.

But, again, that rate of use is in some cases a million times slower than we are currently using them. Certainly, healthy forests can replenish in around a hundred years, but not from arid rock or scrubland.

It’s true that we still have a lot of fossil carbon. But note that it takes more energy to put that carbon back into a harmless form than it took to release it. Unless we use most of what remains—and can be accessed—to build sequestration machines, it will never happen.

Civilization as we know it will collapse within two hundred years, maybe less. We won’t lose our science and technology, but the lives of most people will become miserable. Standards of living will fall of a cliff for 99% of people.

We could avoid it, but instead we will wait until it is too late, when we are far into overshoot. It’s just how human beings are. History makes it very clear. It’s not a question of technology. It’s a question of psychology. Technology only delays the inevitable.

In any case, the only way to avoid collapse is to do the unthinkable: impose self-restraint at the level of society, which is to say, draconian restraint at the level of governments, or worse, for those with power to abandon those without. They will build fortresses and walls, and leave nearly everyone outside, desperate, sick, and starving.

Societies are mostly mindless consumers. But small subcultures and micro-societies, within the larger society, sometimes arise and self-organize to protect themselves against the irrationality and self-destructiveness of the rest. Sometimes.

More likely, after collapse, some groups will reorganize, regain some of their prior sophistication, and might proceed to develop sustainable rules which enable them to develop further, albeit more slowly, with less participation. But that, too, would be unusual, in a historical context. Most societies follow their inertia into annihilation and dissipation. The rich have always needed the poor as their primary source of extractive wealth. Without them, and without machines—which need fuel, and people to maintain them—they will have no body to maintain a society.

Eventually, individual freedoms must be restrained. Efforts must be aligned toward society’s long-term self-preservation. Society and its members are always, to some degree, in competition. If individuals have too much power (freedom), society suffers. Which means we all suffer.

When, and by what means, will individuals give up their freedoms? It’s unlikely they will ever do so by choice. It will fall on someone—some powerful, motivated, and organized minority—to revoke them by force. Even when that happens, it won’t be with the surivival of the whole society in mind. It will only be to preserve their own comfort, prestige, and self-image. People are ultimately more powerful than society. Society is a ghost that can only exert its power when people believe in it, and one another.

Deadly Amusement

It’s been four years since I left my last job, and began working for myself.

I intended to start an indie software and game development company. I worked on two projects. The first turned out to be no more than a hobbiest experiment. The second got well into the prototype phase. But for various reasons, after around a eight months of work, spread out over a year or more, I stopped. The problem is that I no longer feel good about making entertainment products.

The world has plenty of entertainment.

If the point of entertainment is to help people unwind after work, then what’s wrong with that? Nothing. But implicit to that definition is the idea that working—for days, weeks, years, a lifetime; to earn a good income—is a reasonable thing to do. And that one of the reasonable rewards of a devotion to work is some fun and amusement in your time off. And that that is the perfect way to live a satisfactory life.

I no longer believe that.

This is not a criticism of people who have to earn an income to survive. It’s a criticism of people who earn enough income to survive for ten or a hundred lifetimes, or more, but instead use all that extra money to amuse themselves, and pad their life with cushions, to protect their fragile egos, and hide from their fear of death.

I wish that life were a big amusement park. I grew up in the mistaken belief that it was. I thought that I would end up working on designing and building terrific new rides. Or writing stories, or some subsidiary job, of keeping the amusement park running, and keeping the attendees happy.

Eventually, after we mechanized all the boring stuff, everyone in the world would eventually both work at and be an attendee at a world-wide amusement park, and we’d all be having so much fun that there would be no time for anyone to get up to any mischief. There would be work for everyone. We would have all our essential needs met. We would all enjoy life. Everyone would be satisfied.

Of course, that is not how the world is. It’s a ridiculous idea.

Most people have to live with less than they absolutely need. Many people work very hard to ensure that they never get what they need. Other people live with orders of magnitude more than they’ll ever need, but continue to work themselves half to death to acquire still more. Almost no one is ever satisfied. Everyone is usually anxious. Many people are extremely scared, or angry, or both.

Most of us do our very best to ignore all the risks, threats, and dangers to a happy and smoothly-running world, along with all the people who are not enjoying the benefits of the dysfunctional and disorderly world which they are so sure is working perfectly. We ignore the unintended consequences of trying to live in a fantasy world. We ignore the cruelty, the pathology, the suffering, and the damage.

But that’s not the worst of it. Some people want nothing more than to destroy the world as it is. They don’t want to make it better incrementally. They want to tear it down, and build something new, which they can control. While most people are satisfied with playing limited games, in formal settings meant just for that, others are playing very different kinds of games—or tournaments—where the board is the world, and the pieces are other people.

A lot of things are trending in very bad directions. Most people are not paying close attention. They don’t realize that they are likely to be losers in a game they don’t even realize they are playing. They think other people might be up to something, but there are people—in the government, or something—who will take care of them. They don’t have time to listen to “almarmists” crowing about the sky falling. Everything’s just like it always was.

Maybe there’s some garbage in the oceans. Hasn’t there always been? It’s those dirty people in other countries, anyway. We can’t do anything about it.

Maybe there’s been some bad weather. It’s just a temporary thing. Or sunspots. Or whatever. Just stay inside and turn up the air conditioning. The price of gas has hardly gone up, so obviously everything’s fine.

I have had, you might call it, the luxury of having time to step back and look at things. Even before I left the working world, I was trying to see a bigger picture, and make sense out of some contradictions that kept popping up. Some of the people pointing out some worrying trends didn’t seem as kooky as other people were trying to paint them. Maybe they were kooky in some ways, but some of the facts they presented were backed up by science and other institutions of high regard. Some of the questions they asked did not have easy answers. Some of the threats they described seemed consistent with other, less controversial phenomena.

Most people realize that things aren’t perfect. That’s not the issue. It’s an issue of trend lines. Are things getting better, or worse? Will things be different next quarter, next year, next decade, and how? Is it even possible to know? If it’s not possible to know, is it better to assume the best, or the worst, or somewhere in between? Given a set of assumptions, what should one do in preparation? Anything? Nothing?

Who should one listen to about what might happen in the future? Who is more persuasive? Who is more appealing? Who is more honest? Who is more trustworthy? Who is more powerful? Who is more dangerous?

There is too much information. No one can process even a tiny percentage. But you have to try to sort through it. If you want to have some kind of handle on things. So you try to filter it. Ignore the fringe kooks. Ignore the anonymous sources, the rumour-mongers, the trolls, the fantasists, the religious nuts, the extreme ideologues, the appeals to emotion, the self-contradictory, the authoritarians. Also ignore most of the hyper-specialists, the over-biased, the over-paid, the interest conflicted, the utopians. Also ignore the economists and political pundits.

Who’s left? Some scientists, some journalists, some legal scholars, some pragmatic political voices, and anyone who shows their work and is open to constructive criticism. Trust people who adjust their stories in light of new and reliable information.

Even then, it’s a maelstrom, a hodge-podge of disparate pieces. You can’t fit them all together. There are gaps. There are uncertainties. There is still a lot of guesswork, speculation, ambiguity, and contradiction.

Worse, while trying to understand the core problem, the noise, lies, and misdirection create additional problems that slow progress further. In fact, there are malicious and self-serving vested interests doing everything in their power to block progress, and they have been at it for decades, if not millienia. They are everywhere. It’s not a conspiracy if a lot of people just happen to want the same thing, and are working independently to make it happen. There is a lot of money, power, and status at stake.

For these villains, their own place in the hierarchy means infinitely more than the health, happiness, and prosperity of society—or the planet—as a whole. For others, it’s just a question of not really knowing what else to do, other than preserve the status quo, because that’s all they know. Anything else is simply too uncertain, too dangerous. And if they defend the status quo, it gives them cover. It gives them an alibi. Everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t they?

There are always excuses. But I don’t have any excuses. So I had to put my amusements away—or least I had to drop any pretense of justification, which meant stopping the work of helping support the status quo; I did take quite a few breaks to disappear into someone else’s imaginary world. And I had to do some reading. I would have loved to do some talking, but it’s very difficult to find people interested in having a sobering conversation with no outcome but a longer list of questions with no good answers, and problems that have no solutions, and phenomena that have no reliable explanation.

But as long as there is something to learn, I can try to learn it: psychology, history, sociology, ecology, geography, mathematics, computer science, cybernetics, business, economics (or its various new alternatives), writing, communication theory, philosophy, current affairs… I’m not learning them all, now, in parallel, but a few, and more as time goes on. Is it worth it? I don’t know. I’ve learned something. Maybe even a lot. None of it has revealed any clear path, any obvious project that needs to be worked on—that I can work on myself. Not yet. But I have some ideas.

A big picture seems to be—slowly—coming into focus. It relates to the complex outcomes of many small events, taken by large numbers of individual actors, working with different degrees of coordination, towards many different, often contradictory, goals. It relates to the pursuit of power and control—the struggle, between different individuals and collectives, for power and control over one another, and the natural world. It is a story about unintended consequences which might be orders of magnitude more impactful—and destructive—than any intended purpose.

It is about order, chaos, and complex systems composed of people, and machines, and energy, as well as the various natural forces encountered on, above, and below the surface of the planet, including the oceans, the atmosphere, the forests, the deserts, the rivers and lakes, the tectonic plates, volcanoes, and all the complicated movements and interections of countless parts. It is about information, and misinformation, and disinformation, and lies and deceit, and manipulation, and betrayal. It is about equilibrium, and its loss, and what happens after.

It is about disruption, its consequences, and its dangers.

Many things are changing, very quickly. More things than anyone can follow. It’s quite possible that the most important changes either haven’t yet happened, or haven’t been noticed. This could be good or bad news. But since most changes are disruptive, and damage the equilibrium, it is probably bad news. When the equilibrium is lost, things mostly break apart. They do not spontaneously come back together in a better configuration. At least, not for a long time, and after a lot of things have gone to pieces, including the lives of a lot of people.

As I study, and learn, I think about a particular question: what are the points of leverage? And who is applying force to them? And who else is applying counter-force? What are the most important leverage points? Are they all known? Or are some being neglected? In contrast, what kinds of constraints can be put in place? What kinds of baffles can be erected, to slow the transmission of chaotic energy? How can we slow things down, to make them more management, more easily observable, more amenable to correction, or at least to give us more time to prepare?

That doesn’t seem to be on the minds of the people with the most power, and the most to gain, but there are people looking for ways to limit the damage, and reduce the risk. Just not enough. There are still too many people who are naively hopeful and lazily complacent, or who believe, egotistically, that they can weather any storm, even if other people can’t. Some people believe that fate, or destiny, or God, or luck, is on their side, and they will be fine, no matter how many other people suffer. They deserve to not only survive and thrive, but to come out on top. And if sending the whole thing crashing down is the cost to win their just rewards, they will blow it up without a thought.

Darkness

Humanity will destroy itself.

I can’t be certain. I can’t see the future. But I can be confident. I have intuition.

My intuition is not based solely on anecdotal evidence, or personal experience. Certainly I am biased. Every opinion held by every person is biased. But I have worked to counteract my bias.

I have studied. I have done research. I have read recent work in psychology, sociology, history, risk theory, biology, and technology. I am familiar with the general principles of physics, chemistry, and ecology. What I have learned is that, humans are meddling with forces that they do not understand.

Not only are people biased, they are often delusional. They do not understand statistics. They cannot estimate risks. They cannot see all the relevant data, or distinguish between relevant and irrelevant data. They cannot make reasonable predictions. They do not weight their options objectively. They are short-sighted, and prone to believe whatever lets them cut corners and avoid work. Most people are incapable of understand the consequences of their actions. They are particularly prone to ignore or deny the consequences that they don’t like, either because they are inconvenient, or they make them look bad. And no one can force them to do so.

Humans do not make the best choices for their own benefits, or even their children’s benefit, let alone the benefit of strangers, or the unborn children of strangers. People assume that the future will be the same as the present, and that the present is not that different from the past. People are imaginative, but not in ways that benefit them in the long run.

People are lazy, dishonest, cruel, and irrational. They are very ignorant, mostly stupid, short-sighted, and selfish. Humans are animals. We are constrained by the limits imposed by our animal natures. No matter how rational we may seem, in laboratory settings, in reality, we bend everything towards our self-interest, which is primarily concerned with food, sex, power, and status. These concerns override everything else. They make it almost impossible for any person to accurately see, let alone interpret, the world around them.

We can barely operate in small groups, let alone in billions. Augmented as we are with machines—artificial minds, memories, sensors, and limbs—and varied as we are in programming—language, culture, experience, knowledge, assumptions, skills, abilities, biases—it is impossible for us to make real sense of our surroundings, or to predict what will happen even five minutes in the future. We just assume everything will go pretty much as it went yesterday, and the day before. Even though it never does. And even though we are always surprised, we nevertheless always predict that nothing will change.

I have learned that systems tend towards disorder. The more energy added to a system, the more quickly it becomes disordered. Systems interact in complex and non-linear ways. Most complex systems defy prediction and planning, because of chaos. Seemingly insignificant changes can lead to extremely radical differences in outcome. Those tiny changes often defy measurement by even the most sensitive instruments. No computer can accurately simulate any real system, unless that system is highly—artificially—constrained. Even then, errors are inevitable.

Still, all I have is an intuition. Not a theory. You can’t have a theory about the future. You can make predictions, although you shouldn’t. (Because of complexity.) You can devise scenarios. You can extrapolate trends. You can estimate risks.

The scenarios are troubling. The trends are worrying. The risks are increasing.

Eventually, the risks will include an error that kills us. And that risk will grow, steadily, until it is virtually inevitable. Some number of factors will coincide, and create a catastrophe. And that catastrophe will destroy our ability to feed ourselves, or to heal ourselves, or to communicate, or to transport goods, or to keep the lights on, or some combination of all of them. We will destroy the climate, or the biosphere, or the oceans, or the soil in which we grow our food. And it will be destroyed faster than we can invent new technologies to compensate, because we will be unable to organize ourselves sufficiently. We will disagree, and argue, and fight. Without organization, we cannot function. Without trust, we cannot organize. And trust, amongst many essential features of human society, is degenerating as a direct result of technology and increases in energy and chaos.

It’s possible that things will settle down. Of course that’s what “optimists” believe, without any good reason for doing so (besides laziness and selfishness and bias, including survivor bias).

More likely, we will continue to be lucky, until, without warning, we aren’t lucky. That is, we will have numerous near misses—similar to, but worse than, the last financial crisis, or the current pandemic, or the ongoing and worsening crises of collective understanding—until something irresistible hits us square in the gut.

The evidence, right now, is that humans are incapable of correctly discerning the risks of the future, and even when we are, we are incapable of correctly assessing their likelihood—if we can acknowledge them, once aware of them—and even when we accept they are possible, we fool ourselves about their likelihood, and even if we admit that, we don’t prepare for them, instead waiting for some wizard to invent a solution that will spare us the trouble of being sensible.

Even if we did do all that, we would miss some things. “Unknown unknowns.” I’m not talking about asteroids. I’m talking about the side effects of our own arrogance and hubris. I’m saying that, when you play with fire, you are likely to get burned. Only we either deny that we are playing with fire, or we delude ourselves that we know what we’re doing, and besides that it’s totally safe. False confidence is the bane of many individuals. When an entire civilization is drunk on the rush of its recent past successes, when it is most sure of its own indestructibility—like some drunk teenager driving their new pickup truck with the headlights off down some country road after scoring the winning pass in the championship football game—it is most at risk of making a stupid mistake that gets it killed with the most justified irony.

People are so smart, and yet so stupid. It is a deadly combination. It is only a matter of time.

No Exit

I’m haunted by the spectre of dead ends. Dead end jobs. Dead end relationships. Dead end civilizations. Dead end lives.

How do you know if you’re in a social dead end? Is there a “No Exit” sign anywhere?

Are dead ends real things? Or just perceptions? A dead end is not the same as a cul de sac. A cul de sac loops around back on itself. A dead end is an abrupt stop. It can, at least, still be extended with more road.

What’s worse? A blunt ending, or a loop that turns you back around?

Ideally, a dead end road is a call to action. So you can’t drive, or even walk comfortable. That means striking out into the rough, possibly uncharted, but certainly uninhabited, territory. At least for a while.

The question is, why? There must be some benefit. One must have hope in the possibility of discovery. That your new trail goes to some new, interesting place. That others will follow. Assuming you want company.

Dead ends mean opportunity. But only for the hopeful. The driven. The bold. Where does one find these things? Perhaps not in a place, but in a time—of desperation.

Comfort is worse than a cul de sac. It is a circular road from which one never feels the need to exit. Where one waits on some outside force to disrupt your motion, and divert you onto an unexpected path.

Meanwhile, you go in circles. Always moving, never advancing.

Dog Poop

Life is an eternal struggle to determine who will stoop and scoop. Will the dog owner clean up after their own dog? Will the property owner be left to clean up after a ninja poop? Will it end up on someone’s shoe?

Yesterday, I successfully navigated two fecal land mines at the public park. But I grazed a third, and had to clean my shoe. Never again will I buy shoes with such deep and narrow crevices.

Somewhere, someone is feeling pleased with themselves, for successfully shirking their responsibility. Or, perhaps in their minds, with successfully throwing off the yoke of dog poop ordinance oppression. Who knows the minds of such scoundrels?

Life amongst neighbours is a constant challenge. Everyone wants the benefits of society. No one wants the shit work.

In a just society, we would all share in the shit work. We all participate in generating shit, after all. It’s only right that we all do our part to clean up after ourselves.

And yet, some disagree. They don’t want to help clean up. They just want to send it away and let someone else deal with it. So far, they are getting what they want. No matter how bad things get, they have no intention of doing their share. Not if they can force someone else to do it for them. Or force other to live with their waste and refuse, as the case may be.

Some kinds of shit are impossible to clean up. That is, without the kind of power and resources which generated it in the first place. Oftentimes, thanks to the implacable laws of thermodynamics, it takes much more energy to clean up certain kinds of messes than it took to create them in the first place.

Thermodynamics aren’t much fun. Which is why so many people treat them as Somebody Else’s Problem.

Meanwhile, the shit piles higher. Eventually, we’ll all need wading boots. Except for the few of us with sailing yachts, who seem to believe that they’ll just ride away into the next sheltered bay of paradise. It’s almost like they forget that the world is round. Eventually, if you run far enough, you end up back where you started. Where all your shit is still waiting for you, stinking in the sun, or dissolving in the rain, as the case may be.

Perhaps they will all buy space yachts and cruise to Mars. Is that not the current fantasy? Mars is one huge litter box. Lots of space to bury your turds. And no noisy environmentalists!

A New Idealism

What is esteem? And who deserves it?

How do we know how to be?

As social creatures, we learn from watching others. We learn how to behave, how to communicate, and what to value.

Sometimes, we decide that one person embodies the human superlative. We honour them, adore them, and seek to imitate them, to the best of our abilities. We will fight to protect their honour, to uphold their glory, because it is our glory, too, at least symbolically.

But what happens when you cannot find such a person? What do you do if you see fragments of greatness in many people, but no one person presents a harmonious balance of all that is good in human beings?

Is it important to people to live an integreted life? To have an integrated understanding of the world? Is it beneficial?

The alternative is to have a fragmented conception of the human ideal. This may be noble in its own way. The world is a contentious place. Many different ideas compete for supremacy. Many are contradictory, even hostile.

Often, we can point to a single person who represents one value that we feel is good, but simultaneously demonstrates other traits that we fill are bad. Perhaps they are dedicated to athletic prowess, but are also bullies who use threats and violence to dominate others. Perhaps they are intellectual giants who also steal credit due to others. Perhaps they are scions of industry to deny the findings of science. Perhaps they are beautiful and charismatic, yet enthralled by their drug addictions.

Good heroes are hard to find.

If we cannot find heroes amongst real people, sometimes we can seek them in imaginary people. Humans have always done this. Gods, demi-gods, and mythical heroes have inspired us for as long as we have been telling stories to one another. It’s possible that we need mythical heroes, since all real people fail to live up to our expectations. Real people are limited and contradictory: weak, flawed, confused, conflicted, ignorant, uncertain, scared, and ultimately mortal.

But what heroes do our stories offer up to us today? There seem to be too kinds: cartoons with magical powers, and anti-heroes who aren’t that different from regular people. Most of the time, it’s a blend: the magical anti-hero who can briefly overcome his own self-absorption and self-pity to rise to the occasion, only to return to old vices and self-indulgence at the first opportunity. Have we really be well-served by such depictions?

How can we celebrate the best in ourselves without over-indulging in the worst of ourselves?

It is necessary that we admit who we are. There is courage in that. It is even necessary that we accept who we are. There is love in that. But that is the beginning of goodness, not the end of it. Acceptence is necessary, but not sufficient. Love is necessary, but not sufficient. We must also have a higher purpose. We should not be complacent. We should not simple settle for our imperfections. We must have something to strive towards. We must be ambitious. To be truly courageous, we must not simply admit who we are, but choose to be something better.

We must have ideals.

But not just any ideals. We must pick our ideals with care.

We must aim for goals we have realistic hope of achieving. We must be able to measure, both objectively and subjectively, our progress in our journey. We must aim for goals where progress is incremental.

We must also have goals that are compatible with the wider world. The best ideals are those which can be shared—not by just a few people, an elite or select, but by all. We must make room in the good society for everyone. There is no good to be found in exclusivity. It is no ideal that only admits a small, preferential minority of people who have been pre-approved, especially due to some superficial similarity to ourselves. Such ideals based in tribal superiority are obsolete. They offer no solutions in an integrated and connected modern society. Their only outcome is universal destruction.

So where can we look to find our new ideal way of living? Not to the past, but to the future. Not to prejudice. Not to cultural chauvinism, or bigotry, or prejudice, or biological or geographic or historical exceptionalism. Not to mythology, or religious sectarianism. These are all dead ends.

We must look to science. Knowledge. Understanding.

We have to tools to identify what makes a good person. And they are scientific tools.

With science, we might even be able to identify a real person to represent the best blend of qualities to which all people should aspire. But we don’t have to do that. We can, instead, consider the challenges and difficulties that we all face every day, and design an ideal which is best suited to meeting those challenges, and overcoming those difficulties, and being the best that any human being is capable of being.

Once we have done this, we can, if we choose, reify these qualities, in their ideal mixture, in characters in stories. We can even tell parables: true—or true-ish—stories about real people, and how they used their instilled talents an abilities, in expression of those ideals, to overcome life’s hardships.

Before we can describe such human ideals, we have to enumerate the essential challenges and difficulties of life. We cannot know the value of human mastery and self-discipline without a deep understanding of the real worth of such efforts. People, in the end, are pragmatic, even when they seem to be irrational and unreasonable.

In their own way, even the most seemingly delusion and confused person is attempting—with their limited understanding and experience, within the confines of whatever social environment into which they were born—to make the best choices for themselves. Even if they appear wrong, from the perspective of an outside observer with different knowledge, that’s irrelevant. No one can live another’s life for them. We all must make our own choices—even if that choice is to follow the lead of others, even if those others are flawed, or biased, or have ulterior motives.

This is not to absolve people of responsibility. We all make choices, every day, and are required to answer for our choices, within the context of our time and place and understanding. And even within our limitations, we still often make choices that we know privilege ourselves at the expense of others. We all have some intrinsic understanding of the difference between being self-serving and being other-serving or all-serving.

It may that some people have been unfairly punished for acts in the interest of self-preservation. It may be that their minds were warped by their environment to the point that they saw no real choice but to inflict harm in order to follow their own instincts for survival. But we know that people are quite good at justifying any action, no matter how vile, as being necessary to avoid some loss.

But we all know that life is a mixture of self-service and self-sacrifice. Living in a society requires that we all contribute, that we all pay some cost, in exchange for the benefits society bestows. Society is, to some degree, a transaction, and a bargain, and a compromise.

Although, for society to be truly effective, we must avoid treating it like a recurrent series of one-time trades, devoid of deeper commitments and obligations. Societies only function when we believe that their value transcends the value of each of our individual lives. When that is replaced with purely transactional commitments, then trust becomes impossible, because every transaction has a spiritual aspect as well as a material or contractual one.

If we obey the contractual, while denying or contradicting the spiritual, then all the subtle framework of social inter-dependence—of social reliance—evaporates, and the only remaining source of confidence in our dealings with one another is found in power and threat and force. But these tools are not sustainable. Such societies as do resort to them are doomed.

Are we doomed?

I don’t know. Not yet, I hope. And other societies have escaped the spiral of mistrust and authoritarianism and collapse. We have time, yet.

We must use this time wisely. We must imagine a better way. Any such way will depend fundamentally on having a vision for a good life, and a good world, composed of good people striving to be better, rewarding themselves and one another for their successes, forgiving one another for their failures, and being unambiguous is their denouncement of deliberate infractions. We cannot simply tolerate bad behaviour and expect it to cease of its own accord. We must have a humane means of dealing with threats that come from the inside. We must have ways to, gently or more forcefully, persuade people back to the good path.

But we must start with something different. Not sticks. Not carrots. But by telling stories which demonstrate the benefits of adopting a good life, of seeking and dedicating oneself to virtue and service to the social good. We must trust people to decide for themselves, but we should make the decision easy—at least, as easy as possible. In fact, it should still require significant effort, but the rewards should unambiguously justify that effort. And there should be little doubt—and no real fear—of those rewards being withheld for unjust or cruel reasons.

We must ensure justice, and banish cruelty.

We can only do this by ensuring that justice is a trait that is sufficiently esteemed and rewarded. That cruelty is scorned and punished.

Ultimately, we must ensure that all people are subject to the same rules, the same expectations, the same obligations, and the same treatment. Again, justice is essential. Justice is the only means of ensuring that society functions. What serves all serves everyone. No other solution is possible.

So, aside from justice and mercy, what else can we ensure is included in our vision of goodness and human ideals?

In fact, such abstract qualities as justice and mercy should be implicit, and not explicit, in our model of human idealism. Instead, the explicit character of our ideals should come from more practical matters that have an essential character imbued with abstract virtues that will demonstrate themselves as a matter of course.

And what are the practical traits of successful people? Knowledge, understanding, and experience with a wide range of essential requirements of living in the modern world. They are often so obvious that we frequently ignore their importance, even while their neglect leads to grievous harm.

There are too many, unfortunately, to simply list. And because they are inter-dependent, no simple list will do them justice. But we can identify some general areas of concern, based on the general categories of activities that all people engage in regularly, and the places which they inhabit.

Most people live in cities, in modern economies and machine-dependent cultures. As a result, we need to understand the nature of cities, economies, and machines. Not everyone needs the same degree of understanding. But we all need enough understanding to be able to function, and to perform essential tasks for self-care and other-care without the need to constantly ask advice. Especially since we are so disinclined to do so, for fear of embarrassment and shame.

First and foremost, no person can live successfully without social interaction. But who amongst us is truly good as socializing? Who is happy in their family, friendships, work, and romantic relationships? This extends to the realities of property, money, trade, and economics. It includes the obligation to pay debts, including taxes, and to follow rules that we have all implicitly agreed to honour.

Secondly, we must understand ourselves enough to not live with insurmountable internal conflicts. We must recognize and adapt to the inevitable reality of incompatible desires. We all want rewards, but rarely do we truly want to work. Some of us, however, have learned to appreciate work, and to take pride in the self-discipline required to perform work, in spite of our desire to avoid it in favour of self-indulgence and easy pleasure. Work is necessary. That is reality. Accepting it is necessary for success.

Thirdly, we have the constraints and limits and complexities of the material world. In a sense, this is the ultimate category.

All the qualities of society and other people are, to some degree, real, even those that are arbitrary and cultural. Culture is made up of expressions of belief. Even this document is an expression of belief. Which is to say, it is a declaration of preferences. We all have preferences. This is a necessary admission of the self-aware. But we all have different preferences. This is a necessary admission of the worldly. To get along in society, we must navigate our different preferences. We must, to be realistic, and to make society function, expand our tolerate for disagreement regarding preferences as much as possible, within reasonable limits, defined by the ability to continue to function in society and deal with others in necessary ways. We should not concern ourselves with things people do which have no bearing on the continued effective functioning of social systems.

Likewise, the character and constraints of the physical world must also be acknowledged and incorporated into our understanding and decision-making. There is no way to succeed in the physical world while denying its facts. We can argue this, but at the end of the day, science, of all human techniques of learning and understanding, is the most effective means to learn the truth, to the degree that we are capable of apprehending it. Science is the path to power. Granted, it is also the path to destruction. If we cannot recognize the compromises and risks of science and knowledge, and the limitations of human understanding in the face of the infinity of the universe, both is scale and complexity, we will have reached an impasse.

Science, unfortunately, is alien to most people. It is the single greatest failure of the practitioners of science that they have not communicated the benefits of science to the public at large. They have isolated themselves in their academies, and neglected their responsibility to justify their work and attitudes. And they have paid for it with the mistrust and ire of the public to whom they have shown contempt.

The essential feature of all human relationships is communication, and the essential feature of all communication is language. Language is our most powerful tool as a species. All our other achievements rest upon it. But, like the scientists, people in all walks of life and at all levels of power regularly neglect language and its proper use.

Without sufficient skill in language, certain ideas are impossible to express, or impossible to understand. We should all, at the very least, respect the power of language, and of those who have acquired that power. Conversely, those with the power of language are similarly burdened by a responsibility to use that language effectively, by prioritizing the audience, and comprehension of their meaning, before all other goals. Probably I have not done this in this essay, and it will require repeated rewrites to become more than just a curiosity composed by a crank. But it is a starting point.

I could go on, but I think I have provided enough examples.

The point, now, is to find a way to demonstrate the value, to normal people, of achieving sufficient competence with all of the necessary skills of life, of which I have only mentioned a few. Others include the understanding of art and creative expression in all forms, the importance of logic and rational thinking, the need to respect emotions and feelings, and the significance of knowledge of the natural world, including biology, geology, climatology, and astronomy, if only the essentials, and only in ways that directly relate to our lived experience. They are all relevant to our everyday lives, even if we choose to deny or ignore them. They all affect us, in ways both helpful and harmful.

Our ignorance of the world, and our inadequacy to the tasks of living, are no longer to be taken for granted. We must do better. We must set ourselves a higher standard, and find joy in striving to reach them. We must check our ideals, update them, live by them, and reward ourselves for doing so.

The Production of Belief

Human consciousness is observational, experiential, and interpretive. That is not a scientific statement, nor is it undeniably true, but it is one of the ways we describe the human condition. Let’s accept it, conditionally, and move on.

Humans experience both internal and external state. We observe the world, on the one hand, through our external sensors. We observe ourselves, on the other hand, through our emotions. There is also an in-between space where sensations and emotions are difficult to distinguish. Emotions cause sensations of pain and pleasures. Sensations create emotions of fear and joy. Some parts of our bodies communicate to the central nervous system through sensation, others through emotion, and some a mixture. You might say that being human is an ambiguous and confusing experience, although you might find yourself in a tautology.

Perhaps being human is unavoidably tautological.

The experience of being human includes the experience of discreet phenomena, both within and without. We can be hungry, and then sated. We can identify distinct objects in our visual field, or distinct sounds in our auditory field; also distinct tactile, olfactory, and taste sensations. There may be reason to doubt the accuracy of our interpretation of sensory discreteness. Such experiences, and such concepts as things and objects which derive from them, may be purely inventions, projected onto the continuous multi-dimensional fields of which the physical universe is—or appears to be, according to the theories of physics—composed. But for each person, the identification of such discrete objects is a foundational assumption. We form relationships with objects, and with the spirits that seem to inhabit them. Without them, our lives would be incoherent. We can accept the existence of such things, too, conditionally, for now.

I am attempting to set aside philosophical questions which destabilize discussion of how we understand reality. It seems as though, without some assumptions to take for granted, it is impossible to discuss anything, and all attempts at communication dissolve into gibberish and scribbles.

Let us make an assertion, without attempting to question it. The assertion is thus: human experience is grounded in desire. Our sense of the world is organized around impulses to change it. We interpret these impulses, after the fact, based on outcomes, as self-interested attempts to make the world provide things which benefit us. There is a close relationship between desire and discomfort. Desire is to remove discomfort (or pain) and to provide comfort (or pleasure). Because of the intertwining of sensation and emotion, this is not a simple dynamic. Moreover, pain and pleasure are like the atoms of experience. We rarely deal with fundamental elements directly. Most of life’s experiences, and the nature of most of our relationships with other objects and spirits in the world, are complex compositions of different kinds of atomic experience. We can try to reduce them to their components, but in general, this does not work. They are too many, too variable, and somehow insufficient. The composite experience is always more than the sum of its parts.

Our response to nearly all such complex experiences can be placed along a continuum with two extremes. An experience either satisifies a desire, or it aggravates one. In the very middle, it has neutral impact. It may also be possible to introduce a second, orthogonal continuum: recognition. Some phenomena are distinct and familiar. Some are ambiguous and uncertain. Some are invisible and unrecognized. We pay attention, primarily, to experiences and phenomena which are more recognizable, and strongly desire-effective: that is, the extremes on the scale of satisfying or aggravating.

Complicating this is that as various experiences affect our state of desire, our response to such experiences changes, too. I propose that while recognizable experiences can readily travel in both directions, fluidly, along the scale of satisfaction, that they are either fixed along the scale of recognition, or only slowly move from the invisible to the comprehendable as our brains are able to detect consistent patterns, and so resolve discrete natures out of the maelstrom of unattended environmental background reconfiguration, and its accompanying sensational hiss. We filter out most of our surroundings, without being consciously aware of it. Not only do we ignore what is currently irrelevant to our internal state of desire, much of what surrounds us is incomprehensible and invisible, no matter how hard we look. Only rarely do we learn to see what was previously indistinguishable from nothingness.

Dear reader, you are probably asking, “What of it?”

Our purpose is to draw a distinction between two abstractions. On the one hand, we have desire (and its opposite, perhaps disgust, or aversion). On the other, we have something else. Can you guess what it is? I already mentioned it.

Affect, it might be called. Or agency. Or power. Or action. It is the nature of some discrete things, mostly what we would call living things, but most importantly, our bodies, to have the capacity to alter the world around us. Even more fundamentally, as experiential selves (assuming, for now, the reality of such things), to control our own body as if by our own will.

There is an argument that this experience of agency is an illusion. That, at best, our consciousness is but a passenger in this experience of life and embodiment. Who knows? It doesn’t feel passive or powerless. But the power might, in fact, come not from our will or choice, but from some deeper mechanism. It may be impossible to know, but most scientists seem to believe that the sense of personal autonomous control is mistaken. I personally argue that, in constrast to either half of this argument, that it is coincident and completely integrated. Our feeling of agency is the same as our automatic drive. The attempt to disentangle them is pointless. We may never know.

Now we must complicate matters. In order for our conscious will to effect change in the world, we must have some way of associating the intended result with some chosen action. We must acknowledge both some form of memory of the results of prior actions, and some means of estimating the outcome of new actions: imagination, in the realm of conscious thought, and habit or instinct, in the realm of the unconscious.

Habits and instincts are interesting to the biologist and behaviourist. But we, who attempt to discover insights—and draw conclusions—about conscious choices, must consider the imagination, in addition to the capacity of reason.

Let’s step back a bit.

Humans observe the world. We learn to distinguish things in space, and their transformations in time. We discover a connection between the configuration of the world, and our internal experiences. We identify repeating patterns. We learn that our actions appear to alter the configuration of things in the world. We also learn that our actions respond to our will, or at least our desire: we act automatically in some cases, and “deliberately” (at least, in response to conscious thoughts) in others. We observe changes in our internal states, in our sensations and emotions, seemingly in response to these changes in the external world. We learn the cycle of intention, action, cause, effect, and experience. We learn of our own individuality, and learn to recognize our selves. We learn that we prefer the world to be in some configurations in contrast to others. We learn to see patterns in our desires, in our actions, and in our satisfactions. We learn to associate our positive experiences with some phenomena, and our negative experiences with others.

In short, through living, acting, observing, and experience, we develop a set of aesthetic opinions about how we want the world to be. We internalize these preferences, and aggregate them into a comprehensive worldview. But, at their base, they are not organized around any fundamental principle other than our own selves. Even to the degree that we learn our preferences, not from our own direct experiences, but by observing others, and learning, with the power of language, the interpretations of others, we are still responsible for approving and accepting those interpretations. (Really, such integration of the beliefs of others is itself an in-built trait, and often skips over—or, more accurately, implicitly defers—verification, but that is another story.)

It seems obvious, but it is not obvious. As part of living, we learn lessons about life, and about what is good or bad, desirable or deplorable, and we assemble, each and every one of us, a complex belief system about how the world should be, or should not be. And then, to a greater or lesser degree, we attempt to impose or impress that set of beliefs upon others.

Most of us create weak rationalizations, often no more than the weight of authority, to justify our beliefs and our imposition of them upon those around us. Some of us do no more than frequently repeat what we believe in clumsy language, without any attempt at argument or logic, with an air of strong certainty. This relies on some deep human—mammalian or animal—social function, and it works. Repetition turns empty speculation into unquestionable agreement, in time. Certainty is a kind of mental infection.

Others, the more sophisticated, create long explications… like this one! They bring to bear a wide array of techniques, both cultural and logical, but, it must be admitted, they inevitably rely, more than one would like to admit, on the power of repetition and the leverage of social instinct.

In any case, the spread of belief is not my concern. What am I pursuing, here, is to draw a sharp distinction—hopefully a justifiable one—between belief—or preference, or aesthetic—and technique—or action, or method, or morality.

All beliefs are aesthetic in nature. All morals are practical in nature. The world of desire is divided into what we want, and how we can achieve it.

And now we come to science.

Science is a form of morality. But this is not necessarily important. “Morality” is a derivation of preferred methods for achieving preferred ends. Science is a means to an end. Functionality supercedes any value judgement.

If you have no end in mind, then science is of limited value. Likewise, if your end does not involve the desire to know more about the world, to distinguish new and more well-described objects–perhaps because these might replace objects to which you have formed a strong attachment—then again, science is not merely useless, it is, in fact, threatening. Science, for some, resides on the extreme positive end of the spectrum of satisfaction, while for others, it resides on the extreme negative end. For still others—perhaps most of the world—it exists almost at the opposite end of the axis of recognition: it is a word, with almost no meaning, and no application in their lives.

Even if you have ends in mind, there may be no need or desire for science in your behaviours. Because understanding may not be one of your goals. Unfortunately—at least for the analytically-minded, who are infuriated by it—many people claim to have goals of some kind, without ever defining what they are. Or, they may define them, but they may be expressions of a completely different philosophical framework.

What does that mean?

Earlier in this essay, we considered the means by which a person—as an agent—attempts to manage their own emotional equilibrium: by performing actions which affect the objects within the world, with the aim of changing their configuration, to align them better with the agent’s preferences, to fulfill a need, which in turn satisfies some desire.

Everything in human life follows this pattern. It is a fractally recursive pattern, consistent with the fractal nature of reality, and recursive layering of dependencies that characterize needs.

Desires are produced through autonomic or intuitive systems; needs are determined relative to those desires; finally, actions are chosen in relation to needs. Desires beget ideals, whereas needs and dependencies beget ideas. Desires define aesthetics, while needs give rise to morality, ethics, and science. Science defines the most effective set of principles and techniques for developing technology. Science informs technology: the development of better specific actions for bringing about change in the environment.

Science figures out how things work. Technology converts understanding into practise. At the top of it all is aesthetics, which defines the preferred outcome, and delineates how the actual outcome matches—or diverges from—the preferred one.

Some disciplines are non-scientific, although they claim otherwise. They don’t adhere to the desires-needs-actions paradigm. At least not explicitly. They avoid stating their actual desires, instead keeping them secret. But they can probably be inferred from observation.

*

I originally wrote the preceding a few months ago. It was inspired by frustration. Specifically, I had been trying to learn about the study of anthropology. What did anthropologists do? What did they believe? I was not happy with what I found out.

It seems to me that any activity calling itself “the study of humans” has a responsibility to its subject matter. Perhaps the problem with anthropology is its subject matter is too broad. Still, it should acknowledge that fact, and take it into account.

Anthropology, it seems, is less the study of humanity, per se, than the study of human culture. I think my frustration with anthropology stems from an intuition that “culture” is a problematic subject, for many reasons. But fundamentally, you can only study the artifacts of culture, not culture itself. At least, I am not convinced that what anthropologists study is actually culture. It might be possible to study culture, apart from its artifacts, but it would require a far more complex and sophisticated concept of culture.

Culture, to me, is the process of transferring ideas about the world—knowledge, experiences, interpretations, and value judgements—betwee people. While I wrote, above, that I was not interested in this essay about the propagation of belief, there is little doubt in my mind that culture is the process of propagating beliefs between individuals. Group behaviour, driven by beliefs (including not only literal conscious beliefs, intuitions, and assumptions, but also habits, instincts, impulses, and other analogous features of the unconscious mind, and even the most basic reactive spasms of animals with limited nervous systems and no explicit brains), is a product of the beliefs of individuals.

The preceding essay was an attempt to sort out my disorderly thoughts about the underlying nature of human motivation, in relation to belief, and the natural impulses which underlie it. But the purpose is to lay a foundation for considering how these beliefs are shared between people.

This, to me, is what a discipline—an academic or intellectual study—called “anthropology“ should be primarily concerned with. What do we believe; how do we come by those beliefs; how do those beliefs change in response to interactions with both people and the material world: the mental responses to our own sensory experiences? Finally, how does this process, within individuals, effect change in society?

The goal of anthropology should not, by constrast, be concerned with attempts to determine what is good or bad in culture, or to obsess over conflicts (literal or figurative) between societies at different levels of technological development.

My understanding of anthropology is certainly poor. But I spent many hours attempting to find any consideration of this approach to studying human beliefs and their transmission, to no avail. I could find no evidence of any attempt to form a systematic approach to organizing the aims or discoveries of anthropology. There seems to be no organizing principle, no fundamental purpose, little more than a mess of observations distorted by bias and personal attitudes. The whole field seems deeply irresonsible.

The truly discouraging fact is that the world needs such an approach to anthropology. Human beings—human societies—are long overdue for a scientific approach to these questions, which have otherwise been the consideration of philosophers, mostly in the ancient past, when the necessary science did not exist. To some degree, at least at the level of individual experience and belief, it is a subject of study by psychologists, sociologists, and cognitive scientists. But it is nevertheless approached sporadically, in an uncoordinated, fragmented way.

Science, to me, should work similarly to how a person assembles a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a very simple-minded analogy, but I find it very effective.

We can never understand the entirety of the universe. But we can know an entirety of an approximation of the universe. A jigsaw puzzle is different from what it depicts. But it is a reasonable approximation of it, given the constraints of the medium.

The human mind is itself a medium. It is the fundamental medium. It is a medium which can be augmented, thanks to language and symbols, by physical media. But for any individual person, understanding is the sum total of the contents of their conscious minds, to the degree that those contents are inter-related in some larger, coherent pattern.

But, the reality seems to be that very little of the contents of any individual mind is coherent, integrated, or inter-related. Our minds are full of detritus, countless ideas, impressions, experiences, and associations that are not normalized or stabilized, calibrated or even consistent. Our minds are a mess. Certainly my mind is a mess, and I have spent a lot of my time attempting to organize that mess. Whereas, the majority—if not the entirety—of people I have met and conversed with seem to have no conception of any purpose of trying to make coherent sense of their lives and experiences. Or, at best, they have inherited and adopted some form of belief system, usually a religion or some form, which provides the illusion of a coherent framework, into which they can, or believe they can, slot in all experiences, and with which they can interpret and explain those experiences in a consistent manner.

The fact that this is not how it actually transpires, and that, instead, they misremember and rewrite their own experiences, after the fact, to be consistent with their belief framework, is lost on them. That the framework they adhere to is usually deviated, to greater or lesser degree, from that of other adherents, is also lost on them. They indulge their own sense of baseless confidence in the consistency of their attitudes and opinions. They ignore their own complicity in a whitewashing effort that alters history, even reality, at least as they know it.

Most people I meet seem comfortable with treating this flimsy scaffold of understanding as if it were a bastion of stone. It not only frustrates me, it infuriates me. It leaves me feeling isolated, self-conscious, doubtful, and alone. And yet, I am sure that it is important for me to try to improve my own understanding. Not of facts and details about random aspects of reality, but of an over-arching system, a model, of how reality works, at least insofar as I, as a finite information process system, interpret and incorporate the disparate experiences of my life.

My effort is based on a founding assumption: that the universe itself is coherent and consistent. I cannot know this, let alone prove it. But much of what I have tried to inter-relate is consistent; at least the behaviour the physical matter. Human beings are an open question. Except that human beings are physical matter. Complex and unpredictable, yes. Impossible to fully understand, in the sense of making a perfectly complete model (at least, within my own mind), certainly. There is still a possiblity that a group of people and computers could collaboratively assemble and simulate an accurate and complete model of an entire person. But this is not necessary.

What is necessary, for my own comfort and sanity, is to have a coherent and sufficient model. It’s inevitable that some facts of history and experience may never be connected into the whole. As long as they don’t contradict the model, that is OK. Even still, there may be ways to extend the model to incorporate those observations, even if they cannot be explained.

The thing is, am I actually quite hopeful that quite a lot, if not all, of the nature of human beings can be modelled. That it is mostly quite simple. That most of the details are irrelevant.

Human beings are products of evolution. Our brains are finite constructs. Moreover, they are moderately efficient, in the way that all evolved biology is: even though specific bio-chemical processes are exceedingly complex, biological systems tend to re-use the same features over and over.

In any case, a ground up model is not required. Models exist at different levels of abstraction. I am happy to have a high level model, and slowly fill in details as part of the process of building a more detailed and more highly refined model. But any detailed model should be consistent with a more simplified one. That is all I am asking for: that simplifications be consistent; that they be valid and reasonable and sufficiently approximate, as Newtonian physics approximates relativistic physics.

That is my philosophical and ethical dream.

Nonsense and Hubris

What is the best term to describe the sum total of all human communications? It isn’t “the world”. “The world” is made of stuff: materials that obey the laws of physics, to the extent that we understand those laws, and the materials we observe. Possibly, are understanding is incomplete, and thus our interpretations are completely invalid.

That little bit of mysticism is enough to derail my entire thought process, and the intention of this blog post.

Instead, I will try to stay cognizant of it, as I pursue my purpose: to understand the character of human communication.

How can we define the phenomenon, and artifacts, of human communication? That is, how do we analyze the accumulated generation of symbolic behaviours—including utterances, facial expression, and body language—and symbolic artifacts: including written text, images, diagrams, and various other formalized systems for encoding meaning in combinations of shapes on (mostly) two-dimensional surfaces.

Is this the study of linguistics? Information theory? Cybernetics? Or something larger?

Are there fundamental, universal laws of communication? The discoveries of information theory—admittedly, I am no expert—seem to say so. But what I know of information theory is that is focussed on the information content of data, not on the wider implications of how information impacts the systems it comes into contact with. That is more cybernetics.

The difficulty is that information is both an objective and a subjective phenomenon. Human cognition, and awareness, and socialization, is intrinsically informational. We can observe the behaviour of others, and, to some degree, detach ourselves from the subjective meanings of the interactions we observe, but we cannot perform our roles as observers without using language that we adopted from others. And we cannot put our discoveries to use without communicating them with language.

So, I’m worried that this is a doomed exercise. It is cursed by self-referentiality. Even if discoveries could be made, their applications would be limited, and our ability to communicate them would be marred by the abstractions necessary to grapple with them.

Part of the conflict—even paradox—of trying to understand communication, is the problem of intention. Related to that is the problem of agency. If communication is a social phenomenon, then it can be understood differently—that is, differently from the raw content, “objectively” interpreted—based on the intentions of the author and audience: sender and receiver. There is some expectation of utility in both of these people. But there is also an unconscious, even mechanistic character to communication, whether between humans, animals, arbitrary life forms, or any two or more semi-distinctive complex systems.

Communication is ubiquitous in the universe. It is intrinsic to the operation of the universe. The interactions between particles is achieve through communication. The forces of nature are communicative.

Communication, intentionally or otherwise, is a control mechanism. Communication alters the environment in which the information arrives. It would not have any reason to exist, otherwise. Not in this universe.

Does this have an implications to the subjective experience of communication? Besides the fact that people are always trying to manipulate one another, in ways both subtle and gross?

Life is manipulation. We give and we take, and effect change in our surroundings, and in our bodies and minds. Matter moves, reconfigures. Information also moves and reconfigures. Patterns are duplicated, modified, degraded, transformed, transmitted, and duplicated again.

None of this would be remarkable, but for the subjective experience of the disjoint between the worlds we imagine and the worlds we observe. This is the tragedy, the suffering, created by desire.

Is desire good, or bad, or indifferent?

What kind of consciousness can exist without desire? Independent of desire? Consciousness is predicated on desire. It was created as a characteristic of biological bodies that transmute and channel the essential desires of the fundamental essences of the universe. The forces of nature are not just communication, they communicate desire. They attract and repel one another. These terms originated as metaphors, but in fact, they are accurate descriptions or self-evident behaviours.

Gravity attracts matter to itself. Electricity both attracts and repels. The nuclear forces attract and repel. It is the balance of these simultaneous desires to get closer or farther away, and the inscrutible nature of the particles that enable to them to obey their desires, which create all the complexity and possibility in the universe. Without desire to motivate change, there would only be stasis. Stasis, in turn, is indistiguishable from nothingness. Change only happens because it is desired. Or, more clinically, because it is motivated. Desire is a name for the first motivation, which has also been called God.

God is desire. The gods of our religions are personified bundles of desires. The Christian God wants things from, and for, human beings, and all of creation. It is through the depictions and characterizations of gods that we channel or desire to understand the universe, as part of our desire to control the universe, just as the universe, and the matter from which it is composed, desires to control us, and so embodies the inferred nature of the force which gave birth the universe originally.

Desire has, as its opposite, resistance to change. But this is just another kind of desire. And so the tension of the universe, and in all human arenas, is that between the desire for change and the desire for stasis. Every person simultaneously desires to be the same and different, and for the world around them to be both the same and different. Usually, we want to change only certain details, while preserving other details. But often, we desire things that are incompatible. We desire things to have contradictory natures, either intrinsically, or extrinsically—our desires contradict the rules of reality, or even the implicit rules that would be required to make other desires possible. Consistency is impossible. Misery is unavoidable. And yet we long to experience less misery.

Seemingly, there is no solution to the human condition, which seeks to both preserve itself and destroy itself. We will always want the impossible, the paradoxical, the mutually incompatible. We will always deny the aburdity of our own situation, and of our impossible, incompatible desires.

Why do I write this? What are my desires? Does it even matter?

Desire never stops. It is essential. There is nothing we can do about it, except to accept it. And if we do accept it, what then? Do we attain perfection? Or do we disappear?

I suppose we seek a sense of calm. Even when we seek excitement, and stimulation, we really seek satisfaction, and, ultimately, tranquility. It is a kind of death, in that desire passes, leaving only contemplation, observation, self-awareness. This is the goal of meditation. But few people would claim to desire this state in perpetuity. In any case, it will happen to all of us eventually, regardless what we wish. Eventually we will no longer have any desires at all, at least, not as the individuals we are now. Those loci of desire will dissipate, and the elements of our bodies with follow different desires, appropriate to the molecules and atoms which made us up, which will once again be free, for a time, before they succumb to the desire to once again be bound with others of their kind.

I am tired of this.

Finite and Infinite Games

I just heard about this book today, Finite and Infinite Games, because the author died. The title reminds me of my previous post about life as a game versus life as a tournament. Clearly someone has explore this ground long before me, in much more detail. So I will have to check it out now.